Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
After stumbling consistently during Barack Obama's widely-touted tour of Asia and Europe, John McCain and his advisors turned out to have perfect timing this past week with their new line of aggressive attacks. The Gallup daily tracking poll has shown the race tied at 44 in recent days. Yesterday's edition gives Obama a 45-44 edge.
I'm not going to get into the semiotics about whether McCain meant to emasculate Obama or demean him or make him appear uppity by lumping him with Britney and Paris and calling him "The One." I'm also not interested in who is "playing the race card" by noting that Obama doesn't look like all those presidents on our currency. (You know, Obama is not... green.)
The point is, the media took the story and ran with it. And I think it had a lot to do with Obama's victory lap through Iraq, Germany and France. The story line just a few days ago, you'll recall, was that Obama had triumphed and the question became -- golly, why isn't Obama doing better in the polls? At the time, a lead of around seven points seemed positively meager, given the bad year Republicans are due for, the disarray in the McCain camp, etc.
That was clearly not a narrative the media felt comfortable with. They couldn't spend months or even weeks saying it's Obama's to lose, yet on the other hand McCain is maybe not doing as badly as he should be doing. That's neither a compelling story, nor one that seems fair to both sides.
So the media were ripe for a pro-McCain story line.
Obama can hardly complain about the media's need for a shifting narrative. It was clear last fall, when Hillary Clinton still held a big lead over him and the rest of the Democratic field, that the media would grow tired of the story of her as frontrunner.
She stumbled a bit in a debate late last year when talking about Eliot Spitzer's plan (remember him?) to let illegal immigrants hold driver's licenses. The media completely overplayed the moment and began "raising questions" about whether she was stumbling. That created an opening through which Obama drove his big bandwagon.
And Obama, let's face it, is vulnerable to attack. If you haven't bought into the idea that he is a rhetorical marvel and a post-partisan delight and inspiring because of his life story and the triumph over our racialist past that his candidacy represents, you might well wonder -- what is he planning to do as president?
McCain has attacked and it's just about all the media has been able to cover. But if you think about how meaningless polls are at this point, whether McCain is down six or only down one doesn't matter all that much. The fact is, his performance in the polls remains troubling. He's been stuck at around 41 or 44 percent all year. That's how much any major-party candidate can count on just by showing up.
Ron Paul would be getting 41 percent.
To get his own numbers up -- and not just bring Obama's numbers down -- McCain needs more than a series of attack ads.
Once the campaigns wake up from their Olympic slumbers, we'll have the conventions and running mates and both candidates will unroll their fall campaign messages. I'll be more curious about what McCain will present than watching Obama's big stadium rally, because it's not clear to me what his strategy will be.
It is clear that McCain and the Republicans dearly want to make this election into a referendum about Obama. It's a bit odd -- it almost sounds like surrender -- to hear GOP speakers talk about the election being all Obama, it's his to lose, McCain is there as the acceptable alternative. That is, until you remember that the other option is the prospect of a referendum on the economy and Iraq and the current occupant of the White House.
I suspect that McCain will continue to go negative, but he's still going to need more of a positive presentation of himself to win this election.
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